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The new Police Commissioner is under fire for defending community checkpoints that are stopping motorists to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Andrew Coster told MPs that there was "nothing unlawful" about police-supervised roadblocks - prompting a firestorm of criticism from National MPs.

Numerous checkpoints have sprung up around the country as isolated townships and holiday beach communities try to protect themselves from the spread of coronavirus.


Coster faced a grilling before Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee yesterday, which saw a fiery exchange about police's tolerance of the checkpoints.

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And though Coster defended their legality if supervised by police, a legal expert has raised questions about private citizens stopping motorists to question them about their travel plans.

"If a police officer is there but some random person is just pulling people over, they're probably breaking the law and you probably could ignore it," Wellington barrister and legal commentator Graeme Edgeler told the Herald.

The community checkpoints - in some cases accompanied by banners reading: "Residents only", or "Trespassers will be boiled" - began to emerge during the level 4 lockdown.

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Both Coster and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed yesterday the checkpoints would not be tolerated when the country moves into alert level 2.

But Hone Harawira, who set up the Tai Tokerau Border Control, signalled there could be more 24-hour checkpoints to stop rule breakers flouting level 3 restrictions.

Harawira said they wanted to mobilise more checkpoints in the "near future" to protect the North's kaumātua, kuia and vulnerable whānau.

"We want to be able to focus on anyone, anywhere, anytime. We want to get close to vulnerable communities and positive case locations."


Tai Tokerau Border Control have continued to operate checkpoints around the North Island into alert level 3 in partnership with iwi and police, he said.

Drivers were no longer being made to stop and anyone who stopped voluntarily was offered a leaflet with Covid-19 advice.

Kaikohe checkpoint co-ordinator Jay Hepi. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Kaikohe checkpoint co-ordinator Jay Hepi. Photo / Peter de Graaf

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Facing off against Coster at yesterday's select committee, Opposition leader and committee chairman Simon Bridges repeatedly asked why police had not shut the checkpoints down.

"There is no scenario, and it is Law School 101, where a member of the community is acting lawfully by stopping another Kiwi on a road in New Zealand," said Bridges, who was Crown prosecutor before becoming an MP.

It is illegal for any member of the public to stop another New Zealander from using a public road.


But police can.

Social worker Kim Ellice talks to a motorist at the Kaikohe checkpoint run by Tai Tokerau Border Control. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Social worker Kim Ellice talks to a motorist at the Kaikohe checkpoint run by Tai Tokerau Border Control. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Coster, who was a Crown solicitor, said police had worked alongside the community checkpoints to ensure they were lawful.

Police had used their power with discretion at the beginning of the lockdown because the checkpoints were a reaction to fears from vulnerable communities which have historically been badly impacted by disease, he said.

Having a small police presence at the checkpoints also acknowledged the particular vulnerabilities the communities had felt, Coster said.

If police had failed to understand the strength of that feeling and tried to shut the checkpoints down, there could have been protests which would have required a larger police presence.

Coster said he felt they made the right call.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. Photo / Mark Mitchell

But Bridges said police had effectively condoned illegal checkpoints by working with the communities.

"It's one thing to turn a blind eye … but it's entirely another thing to do what your officers have done, which is to come along and condone this unlawful activity by standing alongside those who have taken the law into their own hands."

Coster rejected both assertions and shot back: "At no time have we turned a blind eye. Throughout we have actively protected the interest of New Zealanders to move freely on the roads.

"We're not coming alongside and condoning an unlawful activity. We are conducting a lawful activity which is to check that people are complying with the level 3 controls that are in place."

The vast majority of the public supported the checkpoints, Coster said.

But they would not be allowed to continue under alert level 2 - that was the line they'd drawn in the sand.


"We're on a journey with these communities to help them understand that the risk is now low enough that the checkpoints are not warranted."

Police will set up checkpoints this long weekend to stop any unessential travel.

Ardern echoed this deadline.

Moving down alert levels indicated New Zealand was in a safe position so those communities would no longer need that level of protection, she said.

Edgeler said roadblocks could be operated legally - but it mattered who was in charge.

"Is a police officer actually telling you to do something, or is it not a police officer?

"If they're just standing around and someone else is doing something - is the person who is actually exercising power someone who can?"


Police had extraordinary powers under a national emergency in particular. They could use those extraordinary powers to enforce public safety and to enforce powers under the Health Act, which they'd been allowed to use, he said.

"I would imagine that if police were setting up a roadblock, or if police were involved in roadblocks, they would be relying on the powers that they have because we're in an epidemic and because there's a national emergency to give directions to people."

As police were the ones holding the legal authority to ask pedestrians to pull over or question people, Edgeler said he hoped it would be officers using that authority, rather than those that had no legal authority to. The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website